This is a very odd novel. Set in the ancient university town of Cambridge, it contains many loving and detailed descriptions of favourite streets and colleges which, while pleasantly nostalgic for those who know the place, will mean little to those who do not. And the university itself and the occupants of its various colleges are nothing like the real thing. The author admits in an epilogue that ‘the Cambridge in these pages belongs to the World of the Book, not the real world’. But why create an imaginary place set in modern times but largely made up outdated stereotypes? Who cares any more whether college rooms should always be referred to as ‘setts’ and non-university folk as ‘townies’? There is also an over-the top eccentric Professor straight from central casting and an undergraduate boating crew of staggering stupidity. Conversation throughout is very stilted and the occasional jokes that various characters enjoy so much are never in the least funny for anyone else.
There is the germ of a good story here. The main character Nick, starting his studies aged 15 because he is so clever at maths, goes through an authentically horrible time, unable to mix with other students often because he cannot join them in drinking sessions. He also finds himself held back socially because of his short size and prickly personality. He has an excuse for this, with memories of an insane, now dead mother to cope with plus the occasional disruptive presence of his emotionally illiterate father. Nick’s descent into loneliness and depression rings all too true, and his final survival is properly heartening. But this is brought about by other character who simply don’t convince, talking in clichés and seldom at a loss for some quick sermonising. We never learn what Nick’s father actually looks like and his godfather Bill, a much nicer character, only seems to have a life when he makes one of his usually abortive visits. As for the women, there is young Ange who spends a lot of time bouncing and fellow-student Susie, who habitually tells it as it is whatever the circumstances.
It is good to come across a Young Adult novel so different from the current norms. A pity, therefore, that this one is not better written, suffering from repetition and a growing looseness of style. But Nerdy Nick still comes over as a real character, and readers will probably stick with him to the end, so real are his problems and so slow their partial solution.